Republican Futures Past: March 2001
After six and a half exhausting years, it seems strange to remember that when George W. Bush hit the campaign trail in 2000, he ran not as an ideologue, but as something of a cipher. There was no talk of grand schemes to bring democracy to the middle east, no bragging about a permanent Republican majority. Bush's major campaign pledges seemed to involve not sleeping with interns and healing the vicious partisanship his own party had done so much to create. In the estimation of many analysts - left and right - there was little to separate the Texas governor from his Democratic opponent.
His candidacy seemed appropriate for a Republican party uncomfortable in its own ideological skin. As libertarian author Ryan Sager
tells it, after their disastrous 1995 showdowns with President Clinton over Medicare and the budget, Congressional Republicans had fallen victim to a kind of "Vietnam syndrome," abandoning their own agenda and spiraling into an impotent rage that led them, against their own better judgment, into the impeachment fight. Meanwhile, their electoral fortunes waned. The party's 1996 presidential nominee was the favorite of neither economic conservatives (that was Forbes), nor social conservatives (Buchanan). He was a grey and uninspiring Senator who simply happened to be next in line. That year and in 1998, voters cut away at the GOP majority; by the end of the Clinton presidency Republicans seemed to stand for little but vindictiveness and unctuous sexual moralizing. Even their one significant accomplishment - dismantling AFDC - had been cast as a victory for the Democratic president.
It was in this context that the 41st president's son took to the podium in Philadelphia, in August 2000, to claim his party's nomination for chief executive. Democrats mocked the Republicans for putting more people of color on stage at that convention than ever seemed to vote the GOP line; what observers across the ideological spectrum failed to grasp, though, was how that decision, and the apparently "centrist" rhetoric of the campaign that followed, were carefully conceived elements of a strategy to revitalize and reassert a distinctly conservative politics. In retrospect, it seems more egregious that most analysts missed the significance of Bush's choice of foreign policy advisors, but a careful examination of his domestic policy team, too, might have indicated something of how ambitious a Bush administration would turn out to be.
Instead, after a scandalously resolved election, most observers would have agreed with Daniel Casse, when he wrote in the March 2001 issue of Commentary
that, even before the inauguration, "George W. Bush already seemed a man condemned to a presidency of limited expectations" (pp. 19-24). We have come to view the attacks of the following September 11 as the history-altering moment that unleashed the Bush administration's ideological demons. While those events undoubtedly changed the political context in the president's favor, Casse's article, titled "Bush and the Republican Future," demonstrates how those "limited expectations" failed to reflect the true breadth and meaning of the new administration's ambitions - the agenda Bush's team had been preparing since well before the election.
Casse does not understate the dilemma facing Republicans at the turn of the century. "Bush's victory," he says, "could be viewed as marking not the beginning of a new, post-Clinton era but as the last gasp of an earlier one -- the era of muscular, confident, conservative Republicanism." Just as mainstream pundits of the 1990's warned Democrats away from economic populism, so they forecast doom for the Republican party if it failed to, in the words of the New Republic's
John Judis, "jettison the socially conservative base it gained during the 80's." This particular analysis aside, Casse agrees that
[T]here is no denying that the GOP has indeed become a party in decline. Many of the issues and conflicts that energized Republicans over the past twenty years have dissipated or disappeared altogether. Even more significantly, from the perspective of presidential politics, the electoral coalition that emerged at the end of the 1970's to sweep Ronald Reagan into office no longer exists in any meaningful form.
To Casse, this state of affairs came about in part because the conservative priorities of 1980 had largely been addressed:
The Soviet Union collapsed. Taxes were cut. Confidence returned. The federal budget was balanced. In time, the party's libertarians and cultural conservatives drifted off to pursue other, sometimes conflicting, political agendas.
A neutral observer might point out that Reagan in fact left massive structural deficits, and that while he made government meaner, he in no sense made it leaner, failing -- as we've discussed in other posts -- to achieve any significant transformation of American political economy. But such criticisms are beside the point. Casse is describing the breakdown of the fusionism that had bound the conservative movement before and during the Reagan years; like Sager, he understands the failures of the Buchanan rebellion and the Gingrich revolution as being both causes and effects of that process. At the center of the breakdown, though, was a policy problem: "tax cuts, once the signature issue of the party, were no longer the galvanizing force they had earlier been." Clinton's stimulus package had both fueled the economic recovery and wiped out the marginal tax cuts theretofore cited by Reagan's supply-siders as their most significant victory. Bob Dole's tax cut proposals had failed to impress the voters, and Republicans, who had once dreamed of totally overhauling the federal tax code, were reduced to advocating "a few incremental measures" like eliminating the estate tax. And the philosophical rot at the heart of the conservative coalition was spreading:
Yet if tax cuts had lost their force as an issue, the party was also unable to come together on much else. Preparing to select a nominee for the 2000 election, the GOP could boast no internal consensus on how to reform Medicare or Social Security, and no single view on what to do with the growing federal budget surplus. Within the party, there were bitter divisions over foreign engagement and military spending. On abortion, trade, immigration, debt reduction, and antitrust policy, no unity was to be found.
Bush seemed unlikely to resolve these uncertainties. In a party whose vestigial ideological camps were the flat-taxers and the Buchananites, Bush was neither. Rather than promising a firm ideological hand, he seemed to project his candidacy as something moderate and humble. As Casse puts it:
[A] plausible reading of his campaign oratory was that, as President, Bush would be a West Texas version of his father -- an establishment Republican filled with the spirit of noblesse oblige who had promised his own version of "compassionate conservatism" and had turned out to be merely a diligent public servent with no clear sense of political mission."
In the final analysis, diligence is probably the last quality anyone might ascribe to our 43rd president, but what matters here is that "compassionate conservatism," which looked so much like a symptom of moderation, was in fact intended as a vector of radical conservatism. And this is precisely the point of Casse's article: "Bush's emphasis on aiding the poor, the disabled, and minorities not only differentiated him from other Republicans but formed the banner under which he advanced what were some truly bold ideas."
What was compassionate conservatism? If it sounded like little more than a focus-grouped public relations slogan, its architects were aware of the charge. In a series of articles published before the election, Bush's domestic policy mentors repeatedly emphasized that, in the words of Stephen Goldsmith
, compassionate conservatism was a "coherent, principled philosophy." Or, as Myron Magnet put it
in a 1999 Wall Street Journal op-ed, "far from being an empty slogan, it is a well-formed domestic policy agenda."
But what kind of agenda? "At its core," said Magnet, "is concern for the poor -- not a traditional Republican preoccupation -- and an explicit belief that government has a responsibility for poor Americans." But the other notion at the core of compassionate conservatism was that in affirming that responsibility, conservatives could transform the nature of government itself. Goldsmith, a policy advisor to the Bush campaign, wrote that "compassionate conservatism serves as a true bridge from the era of big government as a way to solve social problems to a new era in which we will have a full and healthy trust in the people of this nation to govern themselves." The bridge metaphor is important: in blunter political terms, compassionate conservatism was designed to use the rhetoric of social solidarity to make possible the dismantling of social insurance.
It's perhaps Marvin Olasky
(pdf) who presents this equation most clearly. Olasky, commonly described as the father of compassionate conservatism, argues that as long as the public believes that big government helps the poor and limited government does not, voters will choose big government. This is what stands in the way of the longstanding economic conservative dream of truly reducing the size of government. The goal for a compassionate conservative is to use taxpayer money to wean people off of government services. The compassionate conservative believes in using tax dollars to fight poverty -- but it should be done by funneling the money straight into the coffers of local faith-based organizations. The compassionate conservative believes in collecting Social Security taxes -- only to divvy them up and send them right back to individuals for investment in the stock market.
Goldsmith's line about trusting "the people of this nation to govern themselves" reflects the sort of small-is-beautiful attitude that underpins much compassionate conservative rhetoric. Indeed, Olasky's own prose can seem downright anarchist, rhaposidizing about micro-level community organizations taking over from federal bureaucracies. It's also blatantly meant to appeal to religious voters, putting faith-based groups -- even, explicitly, those without any legitimate qualifications -- at the center of its project.
There's too much to compassionate conservatism to unpack here. I'll address some of its major flaws -- and look at its future -- in later posts. In the meantime, I only want to consider what George W. Bush's campaign was attempting to do by embracing Olasky and his fellow-travellers.
For one thing, in the immediate political term, they were trying to get around a brand problem. Casse suggests that the compassionate conservative theme was aimed at "disassociating [Bush] in the public mind from either the confrontational stance of the Gingrich years or the more libertarian impulses of the Reagan era." As he points out, the Bush campaign kept Republican Congressional leaders like Trent Lott, Dick Armey, and Tom DeLay "at arm's length," preferring "a mostly new cast of Republican faces, all apparently selected to emphasize the racial, ethnic, and even ideological diversity of the party."
And this -- like the multiracial cast of the Philadelphia convention -- indicates another of the purposes of compassionate conservatism: to improve the GOP's performance among minority voters. One of the major preoccupations of the Bush circle has been to increase the Republican share of "the black vote" and "the Latino vote"; this goal has informed the Bush administration's decision-making from the very beginning -- as when Karl Rove advised the president to halt the naval practice bombardment of Vieques -- up through the recent battles over immigration. It's not a priority shared by everyone in the party: the Buchananites, of course, want no truck with it, and the immigration fight put the White House sharply at odds with Congressional Republicans, whose district-by-district political calculations were very different. Nonetheless, by helping to address the social concerns -- and religious faith -- of minority voters, compassionate conservatism promised to be an element in this party-building strategy.
It also looked like a way to revitalize the existing conservative coalition, by rearticulating the fusionist logic that had, until recently, held the coalition together. If social and economic conservatives had been drifting apart, compassionate conservatism offered an argument for them to renew their vows: economic conservative ends could be achieved -- could only
be achieved -- by social conservative means. Given the importance to the party of evangelical voters and libertarian donors, it seemed a promising arrangement.
Finally, compassionate conservatism was a strategy by which Republicans could move traditionally Democratic issues onto their own turf. Its architects recognized that the GOP simply could not win if it refused to account for the public's interest in Social Security, health care, and education. Compassionate conservatism offered a way for Republicans to engage these issues without betraying their economic conservative base, by emphasizing, in Casse's words, "efficiency, flexibility, and the encouragement of private initiative." This effort, in turn, helped voters see President Bush as "someone like me" -- concerned with domestic matters that mattered to the public yet which had been routinely dismissed by Republicans as little more than fodder for the red pen. The compassionate conservative could say to voters, "I want to improve Social Security and public education." He could, at the same time, say to economic conservatives, "I have a plan for privatizing Social Security and education."
For progressives, the biggest problem with compassionate conservatism is clear: it's essentially a massive pyramid scheme. Basing its "concern for the poor" on an endless series of opportunities to opt out of social insurance, it threatens to undermine social insurance altogether. To economic conservatives, of course, this is meant to be its selling point.
In Casse's early 2001 analysis, this formula looks like a winner:
For how long will voters abide Democratic leaders who remain steadfastly against any use of private accounts for Social Security? How supportive will the public be of Democratic insistence on opposing the use of school vouchers in every case, even for the poorest children? Should the left wing of the party stick to its guns, and should Bush succeed in winning over some centrist Democrats and independents, he may well end up moving these traditionally "Democratic" issues onto the Republican side.
And that, combined with other trends, could prove a turning point for his party.
Casse sees compassionate conservatism for what it was meant to be: an "ambitious project of realignment." His only worry is that Bush's "reticent and stumbling speaking style" might undermine the president's efforts to make his case.
Some Republicans still blame Bush's poor communication skills for the apparent failure of compassionate conservatism in the years since 2001. Certainly they've been a factor, particularly in his inability to convince the public to embrace Social Security privatization -- though there's plenty of evidence that the idea itself turns voters off. Moreover, much of the resistance to compassionate conservatism has come from the economic right, who have reeled in horror at the costs associated with the White House's efforts to "transform" Medicare and education. What was once sold as a means to economic conservative ends is now routinely denounced as a disastrous "big government conservatism," which has in turn been made a scapegoat for the Republican defeat in 2006. Meanwhile, of course, events six months after the publication of Casse's article would offer Rove a more potent political weapon, leading the way for Bush's transformation into a "war president."
The White House has never entirely given up on compassionate conservatism. But, having failed to make significant inroads among minority voters, having left fusionism even more ragged than they initially found it, and having lost the confidence of the American public, the compassionate conservatives find themselves isolated in a party whose new crop of presidential frontrunners are likely to ignore them altogether. The irony is that the most promising ideas for what might constitute the next conservatism -- we'll look at them over the next few weeks -- are not too dissimilar from those propagated by people like Olasky, Magnet, and Goldsmith. Given the confusion and strife among conservative ranks, however, those ideas might struggle to find patrons.
The Republican future of March 2001 suggested no catastrophic attacks, no "long wars," no Abramoffs or Abu Ghraibs. Nor did it anticipate just how fractured the conservative coalition would eventually become. In the months after the inauguration of George W. Bush, the Republican future might not have looked particularly bright, but to those who thought compassionate conservatism could offer a way to revitalize the party and the movement, there might have been, at the very least, a sliver of light on the horizon.
Labels: Commentary, compassionate conservatism, George Bush, Reading Conservative History, Republicans